By Zoë A. Haggard, Morgan Adcock, Brandon Casteel
Photos by Morgan Adcock
Isaiah Wright, 21, sat slumping forward, elbows on knees, on his granny’s front porch in Harriman on a late spring afternoon. Nora Loy, 21, his fiancé, six months pregnant with their first child, lounged easily in a chair on the other end of the porch. With a spoon, she scooped up the remaining bites of a strawberry slushy that was propped against her round belly. Her tank top read “DO NOT DISTURB.” The couple’s six-week-old puppy, Karma, with a sprained front paw that was still tender from an injury, slept peacefully underneath Nora’s chair.
Spring is the season for optimism. It’s when gardeners place seeds in the ground, imagining in their minds the bounty that will be gathered. It’s when the forests of East Tennessee are once again clothed in leafy beauty. It’s the time for new beginnings.
Wright, wearing bright blue Air Jordans, is hopeful for a new beginning following a protracted time of personal winter. If his name is vaguely familiar, it’s because he has been in the news for the wrong reasons. In 2017, the former junior college football player standout, who holds a sliver of a dream to continue playing ball, made a life-altering mistake. He spent a year in jail to pay for that mistake. That time was gray, a time for assessment, for re-evaluation, he said.
Wright is surrounded by green hillsides. It’s the color of “go” and Wright is hopeful the future will be better. He’s living with his grandmother in his hometown of Harriman. The neighborhood is a row of identical brick houses surrounded by a wall of verdant trees. On this blue-sky day the public housing project is quiet, no one moving about, as if the community were in a meditative lull.
It matches his attitude as he plans for the next chapter of his life to unfold.
Isaiah Wright’s first years were not auspicious. His father was absent for most of his childhood. His mother was not in the picture. According to court records and previous interviews he’s done with other media, his dad was in jail by the time he was born, and Wright spent six years in the foster care system.
From such a beginning, it would have been easy to predict that such a youngster would not excel at anything, and people did, Wright said. But others saw a glint of promise, especially in athletics, specifically on the football field. There, he’s in control, as opposed to the circumstances into which he was born.
“When I was born, that’s all I knew was sports,” said Wright, “I feel free when I’m out there. Ain’t worried about nothing but the game.”
Wright started playing sports in elementary school. He loved baseball and football. By the time he got to high school he was showing the athleticism that wowed crowds. In Mississippi, where he moved in his sophomore year, he was a starter. By his senior year, a few colleges were showing interest, but Wright was not selected by any of the larger four-year schools.
Instead, both he and his older brother, Camion Patrick, 24, found themselves at East Mississippi Community College, a junior college with a football program with a reputation for taking on players who were struggling with grades. It was at this school when Wright caught a break, of sorts. “Last Chance U,” a Netflix series featuring talented athletes who were trying to prove they deserved a shot to continue playing football past the community college stage, was being filmed at their college in Florence, Mississippi. Producers of the show apparently liked the possibility of Wright’s up-by-the-bootstraps story. He was featured on the show in several episodes.
The exposure, along with his football skills, earned him the chance to play at the next level. The University of West Georgia, a Division II school in Carrollton, Georgia, offered him a chance to make the team. It wasn’t a Southeastern Conference school that came calling, but it meant he had been given another chance to play the game he loved.
Hollywood fiction might script his life like this: player gets his chance, player takes advantage of the opportunity, player succeeds, with happy smiles and back slapping all around that an underdog had beat the odds.
That’s not Wright’s story. He reported to West Georgia for spring practice in 2017 but dropped out mid-term and didn’t return in the fall. His grandmother fell ill, and Wright said he came home to help with her care.
So it was that in the summer of 2017, Wright was back in Tennessee, living in Harriman, hanging out with his brother, Patrick, whose football aspirations were more successful. He was playing at Indiana University.
Together, their lives went sour on a July night when circumstances, acquaintances and poor choices combined to make them infamous in the court of public opinion instead of famous on the gridiron.
Isaiah Wright’s name will be familiar to residents of Alcoa for two reasons. The first was the adjudication of legal charges stemming from the 2017 murder of an Alcoa man, Caleb Radford. Wright agreed to a plea deal for felony facilitation of aggravated robbery and he served a year in prison with five more to be served on probation. He still has four more years to check in monthly with his probation officer.
The second reason his name is known in Alcoa is because he played, to the dismay of some, in the 2018 inaugural season of the Alcoa Alloys, a semi-professional football team.
Based on social media chatter, these two events leave many conflicted on the subject of Isaiah Wright. To understand his situation, it helps to know the events of July 25, 2017 on Topside Road in Louisville.
Court records show that Wright and his brother, Patrick, were out that night with two other men, Itiq Tivone Green, 29, of Louisville and Keshawn L. Hopewell, 22, of Alcoa. Green and Hopewell dropped Wright and Patrick at an apartment complex. Then the two men in the car met up with 18-year-old Caleb Radford and the three drove away. Court records report that the trio were involved in a drug deal gone bad. Radford was stabbed to death and a sum of cash, about $1,000, was stolen from him. The 18-year-old man was found by police mortally wounded on Topside Road. A forensic pathologist later testified that Radford was stabbed six times, with one of the stab wounds nicking his heart.
Both Green and Hopewell, who had initially been charged with first-degree murder, pled guilty to reduced charges of second-degree murder and especially aggravated robbery. Each man will be sentenced in June, Green first on either June 5 or 6, and Hopewell on June 28. Both men could receive several decades of jail time for Radford’s death.
Wright spent a year in jail awaiting trial before he accepted a plea deal with the district attorney to reduced charges of facilitation of aggravated robbery. He told authorities he knew only of Green and Hopewell’s plan to rob someone, but not of the plans to kill Radford. Wright was released from jail in August 2018. Wright’s brother, Patrick, fared better, with all charges dropped against him.
Dreams die hard for Wright.
After being released from lock-up, he still dreamed of playing football, but it just seemed he had missed his last chance to do so. Then he got another shot.
Craig Brown, 57, owner of the Alcoa Alloys, recruited Wright after seeing him in action for the first time at the Harriman-Kingston Alumni Game in the fall of 2018. He watched Wright catch an amazing pass and run the ball into the end-zone, blazing past all the defenders and finally dunking it over the field goal.
Brown immediately asked: “Who is that guy?”
“I had no idea who he was,” the Alloys owner said. “When he steps onto the football field, it’s like turning a light switch on. He turns into an athlete.”
Brown said Wright was a good fit for his team. Wright knew most of his teammates on the Alloys from his ninth-grade year at West High School in Knoxville.
The relationship between owner and player is built on trust - a quality that does not come easily for the young athlete. For him, when Brown earned his trust, he became like another father to Wright. He even goes so far as to take care of Wright checking in on his fiancé and the baby.
“He’s a person who doesn’t have to do what he’s doing, but he’s doing it and I’m really thankful for him,” said Wright.
As a father figure, Brown is concerned about Wright’s future both on and off the field.
“My main concern for Isaiah is that he can support his family properly. With a felony conviction it’s hard to get a good job, regardless of what you’ve done,” said Brown.
Brown wants Wright to move on and pursue his football talents with other semi-pro teams, an idea Wright is considering. The Alloys owner said he has heard the debate about whether Wright should be playing in Alcoa considering Wright’s tangential involvement in the death of Radford.
An experience like what he’s gone through “will chop you down,” said Brown.
But Brown noted the court had spoken, Wright had served the time and, now, is trying to better himself.
Sitting in the shade of his grandmother’s front porch, Wright reflected on the lessons he learned. He now knows the importance of being around, and “making sure it’s actually the right people, kindhearted people.”
“I’d say I’ve matured more from (the) experiences that happened…and actually knowing what’s right and what’s wrong,” said Wright.
Knowing that his son is going to be looking up to him, it’s important that Wright, one day, tells his son what he’s done wrong. He doesn’t want to see his son make the same mistakes he did.
“It’s my life. I chose that. And it got me in this position. That’s my choice. I’m dealing with my choice. I’ve got to deal with that for four more years,” said Wright, obviously frustrated, referring to his probation.
No matter where his future leads, Wright said he wants to move on from his past mistakes and try to play football professionally.
“Nowhere is a last chance for you. You can always go somewhere from nothing.”
Zoe Haggard, Morgan Adcock and Brandon Casteel are Middle Tennessee State University journalism students. They are in Blount County as part of a feature writing class call the Road Trip Class.